Listen to Podcast Interview with Grace Cavalieri on The Poet and the Poem

Myrtle Beach, 1959

Battered around its edges. Dark crevices.
That was the summer I found the giant conch.
A sea-scarred surface that held a sound

as present and insistent as the past.
So, of course, when I saw that photograph,
I remembered: South Carolina, July.

Hard-edged radiance—
the two women smiling, kneeling
in shallow waves unraveling on the shore.

One is white. One is black.
Both hold my sister and me.
My mother and Bertha, who helped

take care of us—
I never knew her other name.
An exaggerated sheen to the photo,

a Kodachrome romance,
ocean the same deep green
as light under trees after rain.

And these two share the same beauty,
as young, as lovely in their bathing suits
as movie stars—

and my father, who took the photograph,
couldn't have been surprised by the phone call
that came that night. He understood

that world, the way it worked.
O Bertha, what could he offer you?  
Some small gesture that dignifies?

Some welcome? It was years later
I learned my father and my brother
drove her up the coast, to another beach,

one marked Colored—
A lively pavilion. The Black Pearl.
Another wind-washed morning.

The same gulls, spots of gray and white
against a wall of clouds—
Now I see us all as we were in that snapshot,

suspended in a complex, imagined
So much color. The salt-cleansed air.

From Naming the Natural World
First published in The Texas Review